I'm in the process of planning an one-day nonprofit conference. We are still very much laying the foundation -- budget, website, sponsorship tiers, marketing plan, etc.
Here is where I'm stumped: the dreaded money talks. Particularly when it comes to paying speakers.
For the speakers, I've seen online that paying speakers for smaller industry conferences like these isn't always expected. However, I would hate for anyone to feel disrespected or unappreciated if we asked them to donate their time and knowledge in exchange for just some free stuff or admission to the event. Plus, we obviously want them to be incentivized to give their best and show up.
What would be the best way to go about this? Ask for their speaking rate when we email them and hope it's not over our budget? Risk suggesting "we'll pay you X amount" and have them come back and say that's not enough?
Ugh, it makes me cringe to think about it.
Ooooh girl, I so feel you on this one. You don't want people to feel like you're money-grubbing and keeping all the profit for yourself (which is nuts, because events are expensive and usually only have about a 20% - 30% return rate), but at the same time, you've got bills to pay! Conferences just don't plan themselves!
Regarding the speaking set, many industry conferences don't pay speakers (even at a very high level. Like, the highest level.). It's not unique to the creative world. If the audience buy-in is significant for the event, speakers will speak for free and will want to. And you can ask them to speak for free, because (here's the kicker) many of them want to speak and don't give a hoot about getting paid, dependent on their own business or professional goals.
I'm asked to speak all the time for free (I've spoken four times this year already), and I almost always say yes (and not to brag, but I'm consistently getting feedback that my talks are wonderful and my speaking cadence is very engaging. Thanks for all those acting lessons, Mom and Dad!).
Could I charge? Probably. But I'm in the business of getting more clients, not speaking professionally. Speaking in front of a ripe audience is part of me getting more clients AND is a part of me establishing my credibility as an event marketer and planner.
So remember, MANY people are not in the "speaking professionally" business. Some people are. And sometimes, it's worth it to get those people to your conference to speak. But they have to be completely worth it AND their name has to be a big enough draw to get people to actually attend your conference.
Let me say that again:
Any speakers that you pay have to be a big enough draw to actually get people to attend your conference.
Which is not going to be a popular opinion around here, I know. But unless your speakers are willing to go hard to help you promote your event and get people to attend, or unless their name is big enough to get people to buy tickets without them doing a lick of promotion (think: Beyonce), then you don't have to feel bad about asking them to speak. Often time, the marketing and promotion they receive and the legitimacy they automatically obtain by being a speaker at a conference establishes their own credibility, and looks good for their professional portfolio.
It's the best free marketing they can do.
When you should pay speakers
Like I said above, when those speakers make their living by speaking.
When they don't have a way to take any more clients or are not interested in your specific audience (which means they'll have to craft an entire presentation around your event).
When they are flying in from a different area and request that their travel and hotel be paid for (that's completely reasonable).
Don't forget about the little guys
There are many AMAZING speakers that aren't on the "speaker circuit". It may be worth doing some research on where/how you can find these people who are great speakers but don't have a high speaking profile.
Use your network! If you know someone in your community that has great perspective, but isn't a "speaker", ask them! They'll probably be flattered and they'll work really hard on their presentation.
What to do if people are "offended"
This is a concept that drives me nuts, but I totally understand where you're coming from. You don't want people to be offended, as if you don't value their time, because you want to maintain a good relationship.
Here's how I feel about it: if people are offended that you ask them to do something that could be beneficial for them and for you, then they're not the sort of people you want to work with. Almost no one who is successful in business or in their career gets upset when someone honors them with the request of their expertise.
It's not disrespectful to ask for help, which is what you're doing. I get asked to speak constantly, and I always say yes, and mostly for free, because I know the benefit that comes with brand awareness and doing favors for members of my community. Many other people feel that same way. Find those people. Ask them to speak.
Also, this is very important:
Everyone who is successful in business knows how to graciously say no.
If they are horrified and pissed that you would DARE to be so audacious to ask them to speak for free, then they have some other work that needs to be done. Most of the time, you'll be met with an answer like this:
"I'm so glad you asked, and my speaking rate is $500/hour. Let me know if that's in your budget."
If it's not? They won't care. And you will be fine because it's all out in the open! See? No hard feelings!
The concept of "donated time and money".
While I understand this fear, I would also recommend you take a step back and think a bit about why you're doing this.
From my perspective, you are creating a platform, a marketing avenue, a community. At the very best level, your speakers should be excited that you're doing the legwork, the absolute HARDEST part on their behalf: getting the people in the room.
However, you likely aren't going to make a ton of money off of this, and so you and your partner are both essentially doing a lot of this work for free. So if you have a passion for something like this, it's possible that other people also share that passion. Find those people, and the conversations will go over a lot better.
I would also say that the tone of your email sounds like there is some hesitancy about the value of this event at all ("just for some free stuff or admission to the event").
However, what if someone at the conference learns something that changes the way they write their grants?
What if a speaker meets their future business partner?
You are providing an amazing opportunity that could change people's lives: that is valuable, and shouldn't be discounted just because it's hard to place a monetary value on it.
You have to believe very deeply in the uniqueness and the value of this event that you're putting on if you're going to sell anyone anything (a ticket, a sponsorship, a free speaking slot).